Search committee solicits undergraduate input on new data science division leadership

Students give feedback to the university regarding new data science associate "provost" during a meeting.
Samuel Albillo/Staff

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Campus officials held a meeting to solicit undergraduate input on the selection process for a dean and provost of the newly created Division of Data Science and Information at an open forum held Monday in Dwinelle Hall.

UC Berkeley announced in a schoolwide email Jan. 7 that it was officially opening the search for the new division’s dean, inviting nominations and applications for the position. In the official job description, UC Berkeley said that it seeks someone “who will provide vision as well as strategic and intellectual leadership” to lead the division’s incorporation of several academic branches.

Campus junior Violet Sinnarkara data science major who also took part in Data Collaboratives, a program within the division, was one of the leading student voices at the forum. Sinnarkar said at the forum that it is time for data science to develop its own identity and streamline a division pathway for students. Sinnarkar believes that willingness of the search committee to listen to undergraduate feedback is a good thing.

“I think it’s great they ask undergrads what they think because they’re obviously going to be the ones most affected by it,” Sinnarkar said.

The search committee, consisting primarily of professors and administrators, along with representatives from Witt/Kieffer, a firm that is helping the campus with the search process, held the forum to answer three key questions.

The first question for undergraduates was what the dean should prioritize. The second question regarded the qualifications the future dean must have to assume the position. Finally, the third question was directed at discovering what the undergraduate students think makes the position attractive to potential candidates.

This forum comes after conversations about the data science major’s finalization in Nov. 2017. After the finalization, an official campus announcement late last year publicized the creation of the new Division of Data Science and Information. Berkeley’s first round of data science majors graduated last December. Now, the campus is deciding what division leadership should look like.

The current Division of Data Science, School of Information, and Berkeley Institute for Data Science will all fall under the new Data Science and Information division and its dean’s leadership, with the statistics department and the electrical engineering and computer science department remaining part of their current colleges.

Theater, Dance & Performance Studies associate professor Abigail De Kosnik, who attended the forum and represented the search committee, said that she understood Sinnarkar’s point.

“Not being able to count on what it (the division) is going to look like year after next,” De Kosnik said. “I can see how 18 to 22-year-olds can find that very unsettling.”

Early in its existence, a lot of the division’s work has been powered by undergraduate students, according to director of data science programs at UC Berkeley Anthony Suen. Sinnarkar said at the forum that while she would like the program to have more structure, it doesn’t mean new leadership would need to “remove students from the equation” entirely.

In addition to providing the division with more structure, Suen said the new dean should work to incorporate data science into classrooms all over campus and beyond the division, helping to define a “data science culture” and setting an example for other universities.

“It’s an opportunity to help a public institution to reinvent itself in some way,” Suen said at the forum. “Can we be the first campus to have everyone being data literate? … I think this is one of the few campuses that has the potential to do it.”


Rachel Barber is the lead academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @rachelbarber_.